The Big Tow

We put a collection of 2009 tow vehicles through a real world test.

What's the perfect tow vehicle? Well, that depends on what you're pulling and where and how often. You can move a jon boat with most anything, while an express cruiser might require the biggest, baddest truck on the road — especially if there are hills involved. In between, boat owners have a wide range of options that strike varying balances of around-town practicality and hauling power.

To get an idea of the current state of the towing art, we rounded up five vehicles that can handle a respectable-size boat, but still fit into a parking space at the mall. Our staging ground was the Bass Pro Shops headquarters in Springfield, Missouri, where we embarked on a tow-fest with Tahoe loaner boats from Tracker Marine — a 21-foot fish-and-ski and a 4,500-pound deck boat. From Bass Pro we headed south into the Ozarks, where we sought out the narrowest and steepest patches of pavement available.

After logging miles of city streets, highways and country roads with each vehicle, here's what we found:

Dodge Ram 1500
Dodge Ram 1500Doug Dukane

Dodge Ram 1500
Buyers wanting the practicality and backbone of a six-passenger, half-ton pickup can now add Dodge to their list. For 2009, the redesigned Ram 1500 is available in a true four-door Crew Cab configuration — but the big news isn't just the extra back-seat legroom.

In an industry first, Dodge replaced traditional leaf springs with a multilink coil-spring rear-suspension system with a floating axle. This, combined with the truck's extra-stiff chassis, creates a platform that can haul tough but ride soft. We noticed the passenger-friendly ride as soon as we left the parking lot, and also discovered that the 390 hp Hemi was more than a match for our deck boat. The factory folks have tweaked this power plant for 2009, and it now delivers about 10 percent more power and torque.

Taking a cue from Chryslers' minivans, the 1500 now provides in-floor storage compartments in the cab, along with another industry first: waterproof, lockable storage bins, called the Ram Box storage system, that tuck into the sides of the bed. The 1500 can be fitted with everything from heated seats to a hard-drive entertainment system and blue-tooth connectivity. But whether it's maxed out or simple, this new model will deliver full-size performance without a stiff, big-rig ride.

Spec-O-Meter
* MSRP(base): $22,170
* Price as Tested: $37,270
* Engine Tested: 380 HP, 5.7 liter V-6
* Transmission: 5-speed automatic
* Rated Towing Capacity: 9,100 lb.
* Curb Weight: 5,350lb.
* Seating Capacity: 6
* EPA Ratings: 13/20(4WD)

Toyota Sequoia
Toyota SequoiaDoug Dukane

Toyota Sequoia
As the largest vehicle of our tests, the Sequoia can certainly haul a lot of groceries or a boating crew. But make no mistake; this big, family-style SUV rides on one of the toughest towing platforms on the road. The Sequoia shares the beefy chassis, power train and breaking systems of the Tundra pickup, and when fitted with the 5.7-liter V-8, this allows for towing capacities of up to 10,000 pounds.

The Sequoia seldom dropped out of high gear when pulling our 22-foot deck boat uphill, and were it not for the clear backward view in the large side mirrors, we might have forgotten the boat was back there. The six-speed transmission features a tow/haul mode and adaptive acceleration, so for heavier hauls, the shift control can be set to sport mode, which gives the driver instant control over up-shift and down-shift points.

We especially appreciated the integrated backup camera, as well as the adjustable air suspension, which allows for smoother cruising without a load, or a solid ride when hitched up. Despite its size, the Sequoia didn't feel cumbersome on city streets, and blind spots were not an issue. For those who want the interior capacity of a minivan but also need the towing muscle of a big rig, the Sequoia is a prime candidate.

Spec-O-Meter
* MSRP(base): $34,150
* Price as Tested: $47,495
* Engine Tested: 381 HP, 5.7 liter V-8
* Transmission: 6-speed automatic
* Rated Towing Capacity: 10,000 lb.
* Curb Weight: 5,985lb.
* Seating Capacity: 8
* EPA Ratings: 13/18(4WD)

GMC Acadia
GMC AcadiaDoug Dukane

GMC Acadia
There was a time when full-size American sedans could tow a respectable-size boat. Today, families looking for a similar blend of power and comfort will likely seek out vehicles such as the GMC Acadia, which can match most minivans for passenger comfort and cargo capacity.

The all-wheel-drive model we drove provides a 4,500-pound tow rating, and with the 22-foot deck boat, we were at 95 percent of that rating. The only power plant for the Acadia is a V-6 that puts out 288 hp, which was plenty. On steep hills, we'd occasionally override the six-speed automatic to obtain quicker downshifts, but overall, the power train was up to the task. More noticeable was the load on the suspension. If you load the Acadia close to max capacity, you'll feel it.

One gee-whiz feature that we liked was the heads-up display, which projected speed and other information onto a lighted display on the lower corner of the windshield. Our test model also sported a backup camera and a suite of the increasingly mandatory navigation and entertainment electronics.

The ride and handling is more sedanlike than truck-ish, so for boat owners with rigs that weigh in at 4,000 pounds or less, the Acadia would be a smooth alternative to pickups and SUVs.

Spec-O-Meter
* MSRP(base): $30,950
* Price as Tested: $45,515
* Engine Tested: 288 HP, 3.6 liter V-6
* Transmission: 6-speed automatic
* Rated Towing Capacity: 4,500 lb.
* Curb Weight: 4,936lb.
* Seating Capacity: 8
* EPA Ratings: 16/22(4WD)

Honda Pilot
Honda PilotDoug Dukane

Honda Pilot
For 2009, Honda completely redesigned the Pilot, adding a little more cabin volume, legroom, horsepower and torque. The result is a family-size package that's leaner and more agile than the current crop of supersize SUVs. The all-wheel-drive model we drove now provides a 4,500-pound towing capacity, along with a heavy-duty cooling package, larger wheels and an integrated hitch. There's also an available backup camera. The gutsy 250 hp, 3.5-liter V-6 was able to drop a gear and bring a 4,000-pound load up some pretty steep Ozark hills without undue strain, and the brakes and suspension were also up to the task. Under lighter loads, the engine operates on three or four cylinders to boost mileage, and it thrives on regular-grade gasoline.

Driving the Pilot with or without a boat showcases Honda's attention to interior ergonomics. Depending on the model, driver and passengers can enjoy a wealth of creature comforts — three-zone climate control, a 512-watt sound and entertainment system, voice-recognition navigation software and 12-volt and 115-volt power outlets for additional gadgets.

From the driver's perspective, we felt that the standout feature wasn't simply the wealth of conveniences, but the way in which the console and controls allowed us to operate these features without losing focus on the primary task of staying on the road.

Spec-O-Meter
* MSRP(base): $27,595
* Price as Tested: $40,630
* Engine Tested: 250 HP, 3.5 liter V-6
* Transmission: 5-speed automatic
* Rated Towing Capacity: 4,500 lb.
* Curb Weight: 4,506lb.
* Seating Capacity: 8
* EPA Ratings: 16/22(4WD)

Nissan Xterra
Nissan XterraDoug Dukane

Nissan Xterra
In a world where crossover vehicles have combined the automotive DNA of road cars, vans and station wagons, the Nissan XTerra remains unrepentantly true to its dirt-road roots. Based on a truck platform, with a fully boxed, all-steel ladder frame and stabilized leaf-spring rear suspension, it's a true rough-roader.

These same off-road credentials give the XTerra a leg up in the towing department. Rated towing capacity is 5,000 pounds, but unlike some gentrified SUVs that seem to strain or fade when operated at close to max capacity, this rugged rig can shoulder its full load without shirking.

All Xterra models come with a 4-liter V-6 that cranks out 280 foot-pounds of torque across a wide RPM rage. Our test truck had the five-speed automatic, which had no problem finding the right gear to keep us moving smoothly up some very steep grades with a big load.

The Technology Package on our vehicle includes a Rockford-Fosgate sound system with XM satellite radio and a Bluetooth phone system with steering-wheel-mounted controls. The off-road package includes Hill Descent and Assist controls and an electronically locking rear differential. With it, the XTerra is one serious off-road machine, and without it, the truck is still a capable boat hauler that should have no problems taking on any rig of up to 23 feet.

Spec-O-Meter
* MSRP(base): $22,310
* Price as Tested: $30,120
* Engine Tested: 261 HP, 4 liter V-6
* Transmission: 5-speed automatic
* Rated Towing Capacity: 4,500 lb.
* Curb Weight: 4,150lb.
* Seating Capacity: 5
* EPA Ratings: 14/20(4WD)